NFL Combine Drills That Don't Exist—but Should
Every year in late February and early March, hundreds of draft prospects and representatives from all 32 NFL teams move their operations to Indianapolis for the testing and interviewing circus that is the scouting combine. Hundreds of credentialed media will be holed up inside the Indiana Convention Center, waiting to watch the combine drills and hear from prospects, coaches and executives regarding the NFL futures of those players.
The prospect tests range from highly useful to highly suspect. The 40-yard dash, 225-pound bench press, standing vertical jump, standing broad jump, 20-yard shuttle, 60-yard shuttle, three-cone drill, certain positional drills, the Wonderlic Test and various medical and drug evaluations currently comprise the testing, but the credibility of those tests as arbiters of future NFL performance is questionable at best.
History is full of stories of NFL legends who tested poorly at the combine, only to break out once they had a chance to put the pads on and play actual football. And there are just as many "workout wonders" who blew up their combines but were unable to match those performances when it mattered.
We'll never be able to predict NFL excellence via tests in a near-empty stadium, but I'd like to propose a few more football-specific drills that might make true correlation a bit more possible.
Quarterback Drills with Defensive Pressure
The standard throwing drill at the scouting combine consists of a series of quarterbacks throwing predetermined routes to receivers they've likely never worked with before, unless they're working with the same predraft trainers or were on the same college team. That's supposed to provide the required level of adversity to give evaluators a reasonable approximation of what those quarterbacks will look like in live action.
Of course, that's not the case. No matter how wonderful a quarterback's offensive line may be, they won't be throwing passes with no pressure plus all the time they need for receivers to run their routes. The X-factor for any quarterback—how he deals with defensive pressure—is not included, which makes the standard quarterback drills fairly worthless from a comparative standpoint.
So, here's one way to change that: Take a handful of defensive linemen and outside linebackers and teach them to provide specific kinds of pressure on the quarterback without actually hitting him. Create hurries in the pocket. Force the quarterback to hit that receiver in stride with a 260-pound pass-rusher looking to throw him off his spot. Force that quarterback to adjust under pressure, and you'll have a far better approximation of what that quarterback is able to do when he's forced to adjust to an unfavorable situation, as opposed to a simple pitch-and-catch.
Receiver Route Drills with Coverage
And if you want to make things even more interesting for the quarterbacks, and the receivers trying to catch their passes, put defensive backs in those drills. If you've seen the longer throws in any combine throwing session, you've seen unpressured quarterbacks throwing late to receivers who have trouble running the route cleanly, and there's still a completion because there's no pressure and no coverage.
So, let's give defensive backs something more to do. Instead of just working on their own drills, bring them in to cover these receivers. Wouldn't you rather see a combine drill in which a pressured quarterback completes a complex route to a receiver who's getting bump-and-run coverage from the first step? Wouldn't that be a far more accurate indicator of how the quarterback and the receiver can perform? Plus, evaluators can get an extra look at how the defensive backs roam with receivers and keep them under wraps—or don't.
Defensive Back Route Drills with Coverage
Now, let's flip that notion on its head and give defensive backs a set of receivers to deal with when they're running their own agility, backpedal and ball-catching drills. Those drills give evaluators a nebulous idea of what a defensive back can do in a hypothetical vacuum, but unless a receiver falls down on the field or a quarterback makes a particularly egregious throw, an open-catch drill doesn't tell you a lot.
So, make the defensive back cover a receiver as he's backpedaling. Have him take a zone drop. Have him cover in aggressive man coverage. See if he can pattern-match a route all the way through. That's far more indicative of defensive back talent.
Slot Receiver/Defender Drills
Once we've established defensive back route drills, let's do both the receivers and defensive backs an additional favor and give them slot drills. Line up two receivers at the hypothetical line of scrimmage, and put two defensive backs out there to cover the receivers: one outside, one in the slot. Now, those defensive backs could have to deal with everything from simple crossing patterns and double slants to switch releases downfield.
In an NFL where teams are using three-receiver sets and compensating with nickel and dime coverage more than ever, this would be one additional tool for evaluators to discern whether prospects have an idea how to operate in the slot on either side of the ball—especially if the prospects' collegiate systems were more basic. And those evaluators might get a slightly better handle on which prospects have the most obvious skills for both slot receiver and slot defender positions at the NFL level.
10-Yard Dashes for Linemen
According to Michael MacCambridge's book America's Game, legendary head coach Paul Brown devised 40 yards as standard for a straight-line speed test in the NFL because it was the approximate distance of a punt, and the coverage to counter any punt return. That's all well and good for the faster players on the field, but what does it do for the players at positions where a quick burst of speed, and an instant transition to power, is more important?
In other words, have we ever really learned something from watching a 320-pound offensive lineman running a 40-yard dash? Maybe we get a basic idea of that prospect's physical fitness if he can nail the 40 in under six seconds, but unless he is executing a particularly aggressive downfield block (I remember Cincinnati Bengals guard Eric Steinbach running a couple of 20-yard downfield blocks very well a decade ago) or recovering a fumble, leading to an always awesome BIG MAN WITH FOOTBALL moment, the 40 isn't particularly useful for most interior linemen. There are already five- and 10-yard splits taken in 40-yard dashes that are used to evaluate the largest of players; let's make that a bit more scientific.
Most likely and most often, bigger linemen on both sides of the ball will be asked to use their quickness in five- to 10-yard bursts, and then transition to a block or a tackle. So, why not have them run a 10-yard dash at most, and then peel off and get physical with a tackling dummy? Again, we're looking for the drills that give us the best indicators of performance on the field, and while it's fun to watch a big guy rumble, it doesn't happen that often.
Football-Specific Wonderlic Test
The Wonderlic Personnel Test has been around in one form or another since 1936, and it's a common way to test a prospective employee's potential to learn and problem-solve. The combine has used the Wonderlic for a long time to deduce the same attributes in draft prospects, though the correlation between Wonderlic performance and NFL aptitude is sketchy at best.
You may wonder how it helps any NFL team figure out how football-smart a prospect is when he can or can't answer such questions as, "Do three of the numbers from this list add to 44? 21, 7, 34, 9, 15," or "Three painters can paint three walls in three minutes. How many painters are needed to paint 27 walls in nine minutes?"
A more predictive manner of deducing football intelligence might be a custom test that makes prospects think in football terms. A test that, for example, might make a prospect analyze every word in a West Coast offense play call and write down what it all means (i.e., Where's the protection call and where are the route concepts in "Brown Right F Short 2 Jet Flanker Drive?"). Or, who does what in a trap play? Or, ask the prospect to describe pattern-matching coverage, whether his college team used it or not.
Such questions would not only reveal the football intelligence of a prospect, but show to a point how much a prospect can describe plays that may or may not have been a part of his collegiate system. And prepping for those questions would make a lot more sense in this venue than, "What is 48 divided by six? The answer must be provided in written format."
When NFL teams meet with individual prospects at the combine, the prospects are asked to draw up plays on a whiteboard and remember them under stress. A more football-centric Wonderlic would help those same teams understand just how much each prospect has on the ball in a schematic sense.
There are several agility drills at the combine, but only one real strength test. Prospects must see how many times they can lift a 225-pound barbell in the bench press. It might give you a basic idea of upper-body strength for an offensive or defensive lineman, but if you're disappointed because that 170-pound slot receiver you covet was only able to bench five reps at that weight, you may be barking up the wrong tree.
Modern prospect training has players doing all kinds of cross-training, and it's past time for the combine to reflect that. If you want to keep the bench presses, fine. But maybe add squats and some cardio exercises with CrossFit elements that force a prospect to perform to fatigue in multiple ways. At best, these exercises could coordinate with necessary on-field skills. At worst, teams would get a better idea of how a prospect can handle different kinds of exercises, and where his attributes and liabilities are from a pure fitness standpoint.
Pads and Helmets for Everyone
Baltimore Ravens safety Tony Jefferson certainly isn't the first person to suggest that football drills without pads and helmets are a bit silly, but he's among the most recent.
That's why I never did all the combine stuff when I was younger. If the camp didn't have full pads on, I 100% wasn't goin. Why you wanna see what I look like in shorts? Or How fast I am in shorts? Strap up gear & don't lack. How I was taught 🤷🏾♂️ https://t.co/n83wy8skgI— Tony Jefferson (@_tonyjefferson) February 21, 2018
It's a valid point. If a cornerback runs a 4.2 40-yard dash in a straight line on a fast track, do we know how much that time will be reduced when he has a full NFL uniform on? How will his backpedal drills be altered? Will he lose more speed or agility? When people denigrate the combine as the "underwear Olympics," this is what they generally mean, and doing at least some of the drills in full uniform would give a bit more like-as-like sense to the proceedings.
Which, with all of these drills, is all we ask.